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Chapter 26 - Volunteering with Refugees - Greece

By Neil and Nkki

sunny 29 °C

It was the image of this little boy, 3 year old Syrian refugee Alan Kurdi, washed up on Bodrim beach in Turkey, having drowned at sea in September 2015, that galvanised the world into action for the tsunami of refugees that were arriving in Europe from the Syrian War. He’d been trying to get from Bodrim in Turkey to the Greek Island of Kos in a tiny rubber raft.

The body of 3 year old Alan Kurdi, washed up on a beach in Turkey after the boat he was trying to escape Syria in capsized, killing him, his infant sister and mother. Only his father survived.

The Kurdi family were trying to reach Canada, a place which for many seeking asylum has been considered the ultimate safe haven.

If a photograph can be powerful, so can music. An Australian musician, Missy Higgins, was so moved by Alan Kurdi’s death, she wrote the song ‘Oh Canada’. Both the music and imagery are searing.

An image from the video to the song ‘Oh Canada’ by Australian artist Missy Higgins (search ‘Youtube Missy Higgins Oh Canada – Official Video’ to listen to and watch this beautiful tribute).

This only firmed the resolve of Nikki and I to volunteer in a refugee camp in Greece during our Big Trip.

The Thermopylae Refugee Camp near Lamia, Greece.

“Thermo-pylae” is Greek for “hot-spring” and the sulphurous natural springs at Thermopylae in Central Greece have existed for well over 3000 years. There is an old abandoned hotel near the hot springs and about 12 months ago the Greek government decided it would be a good location for a refugee camp.

The Thermopylae Refugee Camp – Greece. One of the accommodation blocks.

There are about 800 refugees in the camp. About 120 are school aged children. Approximately 75% are Syrian, 15% Kurdish and 10% Palestinian.

We volunteered for an organisation called Happy Caravan, whose primary goal is to provide English, maths and music lessons, as well as cinema and dance activities, for the children in the camp.

The Classroom at the Thermopylae refugee camp.

Before describing our time there, I wanted to give some background around the refugee situation for those interested…..

The Refugee Situation in Europe

Take a look at the immigration of non-EU nationals between 2010 and 2013 (in green). Its sitting at about 1.3 million per year.

Now take a look at the asylum seekers (orange) and illegal border crossings (blue). Prior to 2014 they were about 400,000 per year. Then in 2014 it starts to spike up to 900,000.


In 2015, however, the wave became a tsunami.

Mediterranean sea arrivals to Greece and Italy from January 2015 to September 2016.

Yes. In October 2015 about 215,000 people arrived in Greece by boat. Over a million in a 12 month period, into Greece alone. And these were the lucky ones. They made it across the Mediterranean to the refugee camps. An estimated 10,000 for the period 2015 - 2017 did not survive the crossing.

(The “EU-Turkey” deal refers to an agreement that any people arriving in Greece from Turkey would be returned to Turkey).

Where were the asylum seekers coming from?

Sea arrivals into Greece and Italy in 2015

The chart below shows that, whilst I’ve called this section ‘The Refugee Situation in Europe’, you can see that the countries with the highest number of refugees are Pakistan and Turkey, with over 1.5 million and 2.7 million respectively. It also shows that around 4 million refugees have come from Syria, and 3 million from Afghanistan.

Chart showing where refugees are coming from and going to in Europe, North Africa and the Middle East.

The Story of One Refugee – Alaa Eddin Jnaid – Founder of Happy Caravan.

In 2013, Alaa was a 29 year old bloke living in Aleppo, Syria when war engulfed his city.

Map of Syria.

Alaa was just an average guy, living and working away in Aleppo. Then bombs started dropping on his city. One day, while he was eating his dinner, a bomb landed on his car out the front of his house destroying it completely. Then Islamic State came into Aleppo. Alaa was working for the Jesuit Refugee Service. Due to this work, his name was ‘put on a list’ by IS and he realised that if he didn’t flee, he would be murdered.

Alaa Eddin Jnaid – Netherlands citizen – Syrian Refugee – founder of Happy Caravan.

He swam across a river to Turkey and eventually got on a boat to Greece. The boat landed on the island of Samos, on a remote rocky outcrop against a sheer rock face. With no help in sight, a dozen men, including Alaa, decided to climb the rock face to try and find assistance. During the climb 3 men fell to their deaths. However, there was no choice for the others but to go on. The people on the beach had no water or food and risked dying of exposure.

At the top they eventually found assistance and made it to a Greek refugee camp.

But What Happened Then?

So, it’s time for a bit of Asylum Seeker/ Refugee Class 101.

I said in an earlier blog that the United Nations was formed out of the crucible of the Second World War. This is also true of Human Rights.

Eleanor Roosevelt, the leader of the international effort to develop the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, with the Spanish version of the Declaration. It was ratified by the UN on 10th December 1948.

The Declaration forms the cornerstone of Human Rights Law in the world. Important for Asylum Seekers, Article 14 (1) states:

1. Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution

I think probably Article 2 and 3 are then important to note:

Article 2:

Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status……

Article 3:

Everyone has the right to life, liberty, and security of person.


Now, onto the Refugee part:

Once again, following the Second World War and the millions of refugees that that conflict caused, the UN started working on a Convention for Refugees. This became known as the 1951 Refugee Convention and was ratified by the UN in July 1951.

Of course, the cornerstone of the convention is the definition of a Refugee. This is defined in Article 1 of the Convention and is:

“A person who owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, and nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it.”

The assessment of whether an asylum seeker meets the requirements to be a 'refugee' is made by the government where asylum is sought, or by the UNHCR (if requested by that government). (More on this from an Australian perspective later on).

Once someone has been granted refugee status then the rights under the 1951 Refugee Convention come into effect. These, in simple terms, give refugees the same rights as the local population with respect to welfare, healthcare, education, housing, employment, etc.

Regarding resettlement, however, under Article 34 of the 1951 Refugee Convention, it states:

‘The Contracting States shall as far as possible facilitate the assimilation and naturalization of refugees. They shall in particular make every effort to expedite naturalization proceedings and to reduce as far as possible the charges and costs of such proceedings’.

BUT!!! I ain't a lawyer but note that it doesn’t say ‘will’, or ‘must’. This means that states are obliged but not compelled to resettle refugees. However, the European Union appears to have taken the 1951 Refugee Convention in the spirit in which is was written. It’s set up the European Asylum Support Office and the Dublin Regulation and the EU Emergency Relocation Mechanism. The Dublin Regulation is a European Law that determines by fingerprinting the EU Member responsible for an asylum seeker claim and is linked to the EU Emergency Relocation Mechanism which is where the number of refugees each country in the EU should resettle is allocated.

In addition to the amazing efforts of Germany in 2015, the EU Emergency Relocation Mechanism is making real progress. Not all of the countries of Europe are meeting their obligations, with some refusing to take any refugees (Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic are all subject of legal action by the EU Commission for failure to meet their obligations under the Agreement). However, the number of refugees now in Greece is around 60,000 and the resettlement into Europe is underway. But Greece, and no doubt the other countries, are struggling to provide basic services for the refugees coming to its shores, including schooling for the children (which is ad hoc at best).

Back to Alaa’s story:

After a while in refugee camps in Greece, Alaa decided that he needed to get to a third country in order for his application for asylum to be processed. He paid people to get him to the Netherlands and in around 2015 was granted asylum.

However, as soon as Alaa finally found a safe haven for himself, he found that he could not abandon the others facing the same fate in Greece and Italy. Alaa went back to Greece and volunteered his time with a number of refugee organisations, before he founded Happy Caravan, hoping to provide education to the children in refugee camps.

Alaa on his 33rd birthday being given presents by some of the Happy Caravan family…

Alaa is a magnetic individual. At times animated. At times, retreating to fight the demons scarring his psyche. Engaging. Empowering. A true leader. Alaa has the ability to attract and motivate talented individuals and then let them “fly”. He has strengths and can attract people who can fill his weaknesses.

He set up Happy Caravan only 5 months ago with nothing; no money, no equipment, but with a zeal to help. And now, there is a classroom, a large and steady stream of volunteers, a project manager to run the program at Thermopylae, an apartment for the volunteers, and teaching equipment.

Nik and I cooked a birthday dinner for Alaa. In the photo we have Zakrya, Alaa, Audrey, Nik, Hannah, Yvonne, Piotr, Agatha, and me.

If you are interested in a greater perspective about the true human impact and cost of war, Alaa previously completed an interview about his experiences. It can be found by searching the net for "Alaa Jnaid YouTube (Little things can make a difference)". Please be aware this interview is an incredibly honest and personal account of Alaa's experiences and is confronting. It is however, also a rare first hand account of the trauma caused by the Syrian war, a perspective often missing in today's media.

Happy Caravan:

When we arrived at Happy Caravan there were 5 other volunteers, a truly international contingent; 2 Spanish, 2 Polish and one Dutch - plus Alaa!

Piotr, the Polish bloke is an associate professor in Art and taught Art in an inclusive, inventive, and ever-changing way. One day getting the kids to make masks, the next painting a big cardboard castle.

We were driving from Lamia to Thermopylae and Piotr saw an enormous folded cardboard box. We stopped the tiny “Ford Ka”, put the cardboard through the back, against the roof of the car, and there was, in his mind, a castle for the children to paint.


There was gorgeous Agatha, who had taken on the mantle of Program Organiser for her 4 week stay. She sorted out the schedule and the plan for the centre, as well as coordinating all of us while we were there (no small job, I assure you!).

And our beautiful compatriots from Espana, Carla and Angela! These two amazing women taught English and Maths to the children with such fun and passion, it was inspiring.

Angela and Carla who taught English and Maths before Nikki and me.

And finally, but far from least, the amazingly creative Lisette from the Netherlands taught Art and all sorts of creativeness to the children, who absolutely loved her and her infectious smile!

Lisette. Art maestro!

Nikki getting a girl hug


There are two groups of children at the Happy Caravan school. The first group, older children aged from around 7 to 14, came to morning lessons. The second group of mainly younger children, came for a shorter afternoon session. There could be anywhere from 5 to 20 children in each class, depending on the day.

A surprise farewell for Lisette

We were lucky enough to have two Arabic speaking volunteers from within the camp assisting us, Zakrya, a 46 year old from Aleppo, and Khaled, a student from Syria. Zakrya had a successful air conditioning business, 2 houses, a wife and four kids before the war. His business and houses were destroyed during the conflict and he and his family fled to Greece. Zakrya’s wife and children have already been granted asylum and are waiting for him in Hamburg, but due to ongoing bureaucracy he has been waiting in Greece over a year to join them.

Zakrya having fun in art class...

Khaled is a Petrochemical student who had had to flee Syria due to the conflict and is waiting for resettlement.

Khaled sporting the glasses that Nik kindly made for him….

The classes for the first group started at 11am and went until 1.30pm, and from 2pm to 4pm for the second group. From 4.30pm each evening all the children would come to the school for English movies or cartoons, and of course popcorn! Or occasionally music…

Zakrya and I teaching that Old MacDonald had some weird animals on his farm…

One day Nik and another one the volunteers, Audrey, took four of the older teenage girls to the beach. Too old for school, too young for independence, these young women spend their days confined to their family rooms, never experiencing anything so normal as a day shopping or coffee with their girlfriends. Nik and Audrey tried to give them a taste of this. Afterwards Nik said “What makes me so sad is that these girls could be anything - scientists, doctors, lawyers - but each day in this limbo they fall behind their peers - making it harder for them to achieve their dreams”. Writing that I can’t help but think about my own kids, the education they’re getting, how they are fulfilling their potential and how I’d feel if their lives were suddenly torn apart and put on hold.

Nik and Audrey with the teenage refugee girls they took to the beach. Each day in the refugee camp makes it harder for them to reach their potential.

And then I think about the waste that is each day that these people are in limbo.

With all of that said, we found the children to be wonderfully warm and accepting. There were of course issues and tensions at times, especially between the Syrians and Kurdish children, but overall they seemed to be coping better than we had hoped, at least in the school environment. They genuinely wanted to attend school and learn.


Sitting down and thinking now, a week after we left the camp, I reckon that Greece is doing a really good job with the refugee crisis. Yes, it could be better, but I think in light of their own troubles, they are making a commendable effort.

Alaa is a truly inspirational individual. Similarly to Berenice, the manager of the Manos Amigas charity in Colombia, he has that selflessness that leaves me full of admiration.

I really, really hope that Greece lifts it’s game to provide education for these kids soon.

I really hope that Europe, at a minimum, meets its self-imposed refugee quotas soon.

I really hope that the Syrian conflict stops soon.

Which brings me to war and conflict.


The Syrian War, and War and Conflict in general.

I’m sure I’m not alone in having only a poor knowledge of the war in Syria.

The clearest explanation I’ve seen is in from the Wikipedia pages on the Syrian Civil War. It includes this diagram of the protagonists in the war and their relationships:

A diagram showing the protagonists in the Syrian Civil War. You don’t need to be able to read the names in the circles to appreciate that it’s a horrible, convoluted, interconnected mess.

The map below shows, at present, who’s in control of which parts of the country:

Map of the current (Sept 2017) situation in Syria. Red = Syrian Government, Green = Syrian Opposition, Yellow = Rojava (SDF), Grey = Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, White = Tahrir al-Sham (formally known as the al-Nusra Front).

Sources also refers to the Syrian Civil War as the ‘Iran – Saudi Arabia Proxy War’.

Based on the above, it’s clear that peace in Syria will be a long time coming. But it will come. I was convinced in the 1970’s, 1980’s and early 1990’s that peace in Northern Island was not possible. The animosity ran too deep. There had been too much death. Too many murders. And yet, in 1998 the Good Friday accords were signed and there has now been peace for over two decades.

We were in Colombia when the protagonists in the Colombian War signed the peace deal that, interestingly, President Santos of Colombia had based on the Good Friday Accords. The Colombian War had been going on for 60 years.

Which brings me to writing about War and Conflict in General. Since the Second World War the United Nations has mediated 172 peace agreements. And yet between 1956 and 2016 there have been 43 genocides resulting in the death, the murder, of 50 million people. There have been dozens – no hundreds – of wars and conflicts. And, having just volunteered in a refugee camp in Greece, we read about 400,000 Rohingya refugees fleeing from Myanmar into Bangladesh. You’d think that, as a human race, the world would be better than this. There are many simmering tensions in many countries in the world. What is it that suddenly, or seemingly suddenly, makes a tension boil over into full blown conflict? One thing is for certain, things have to fall to shit in a massive way before people will flee. Plus, given a choice, many people would prefer to go “back home” if the situation became “normal” again.

In my view the United Nations, which encourages the “talking is better than shooting” ethos is a positive start. But it isn’t enough. Nik has said that I should look to the history of humankind which shows a natural tendency toward war and conflict, but I think that, whilst that may be true, we as a species should be, and can be, better.

I am sure that we are, we must be, we can be, we will be, better as a human race……..


Australia, Asylum Seekers, and Refugees.

Australia. The Lucky Country. The Rich Country.

I’ll try to put this down as factually as I can and you can be the judge of what you think.
The 1951 Refugee Convention states that it is common that an Asylum Seeker may not follow the normal paths to enter a country and that “Contracting States”, ie states that have signed the 1951 Refugee Convention (which Australia has), should give due consideration to this when considering the treatment of an Asylum Seeker. The Australian Government, and the Australian Opposition have given due consideration to this and both agree that Australia is, and should continue to be, the only country in the world with indefinite mandatory detention of asylum seekers.

You’ll have read earlier in this blog that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (of which Australia is a founding signatory), states that “Everyone has the right to seek and enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution”. The Australian Government, and the Australia Opposition, both have a policy that, if anyone arrives by boat, and actually gets to Australia, they will under no circumstances be granted asylum. In addition, not only will they be put into indefinite mandatory detention, but it will be offshore. Aussies out there will be interested to know that the Australian Government, whilst admitting no guilt, has just settled a class action bought by the asylum seekers in off-shore detention for pain and suffering caused by their incarceration. How much did the asylum seekers win? AU$70 million + costs.

You’ll have read earlier in this blog that if an asylum seeker is granted refugee status, that brings with it considerable privileges; education, welfare rights, employment rights, etc. The Australian Government, and the Australian Opposition, both support stretching this process out for years (1 to 5 years). All the while this process is stretched out, the asylum seeker is locked in a concentration camp with no rights of any kind, including that of safe or sanitary living condtions.

And there are many, many more examples of where the Australian Government, and the Australian Opposition, support Australia not meeting it’s international Human Rights, Asylum Seeker, and Refugee obligations and commitments.


Yeah but what about letting in terrorists? And they’re queue jumpers! And they’re not Aussies (or French, or German, or [Insert nationality here])! And they’re all on welfare and wont get a bloody job! And they’re Burqa wearing Muslims! And it’s leading to the rise in Ultra Right-Wing Parties!

I want to tackle these head on. I absolutely believe in the Voltairean principle of “I might not like what you have to say but I’ll fight to the death for your right to say it”. And if people are free to say comments like the above, I’m free to respond.

Let’s take the last point first. The rise in the Ultra Right-Wing Parties. There always have been, and I suspect always will be, people that support the far right of politics. However, I think perspective is needed. And a really good example of this is in the recent German election. After having granted asylum to over 1 million refugees between 2015 and now, (i.e. 1 refugee for every 80 German citizens), 87% of the German electorate voted either for the present Chancellor, Angela Merkel, or for other non Far Right parties. That, I reckon, is a resounding vote of confidence in the Chancellors actions.

Next. They’re not Aussies (or Germans/ French/ or [insert nationality here]). Righto. Let’s take Australia first. 1% of Australians are “real” Australians, i.e. haven’t “blown in” over the past 230 years. I.e. they’re Indigenous Australians. The rest of us are blow ins.

The package for Heinz tomato ketchup that makes reference to 57 varieties. This has led to the comment some peoples cultural heritage is a bit of a “Heinz 57”, ie like Heinz Tomato Ketchup, they’re made up of 57 varieties.

Nik is a case in point. She has German, Irish, Scottish, and English blood, plus I’m sure a few more varieties. In Australia we’ve had waves of migration including the Irish in the 1880’s, the Greek’s and Italian’s post the Second World War (Melbourne had for a time the second largest Greek city in the world after Athens), the Vietnamese in the 1970’s, the Indians and Chinese now. Whilst working for AGL Energy in Melbourne about 8 years ago we had a Sri Lankan Buddhist Australian, an Italian Catholic Australian, a Malaysian Hindu of Indian origin Australian, a South African Protestant Australian, me (an English Protestant) Australian, and a “Heinz 57” Australian all working together in a team. The team was stronger than a monocultural team. The different viewpoints, the different cultural heritages, the different psyches made us stronger.

As for Europe. Crikey! Everyone’s invaded/ been invaded by everyone else over the centuries.

People have their right to their view, even if, in my view, it is bigoted and wrong.

They’re queue jumpers! So you’re rotting in a camp in Indonesia having lost everything in Syria. You’re hoping you’ll get resettlement but when? What would you do?

Well, I’ll tell you what Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser did in the mid 1970’s. He didn’t want people dying at sea, so he set up centres in Indonesia to process asylum claims.

Whilst I was researching this blog I learnt that, following the death of Alan Kurdi on 3rd September 2015, Australia announced that it would issue Permanent Residency (PR) visas to 12,000 Syrian and Iraqi refugees. This was in addition to the existing quota of 13,750 refugees that it had committed to issuing each in 2015/16 and 2016/17, i.e. 39,500 in total. The actual number issued? Less than 23,000. Having just come from a refugee camp, I am bitterly disappointed, but not surprised by the misleading actions of the Australian Government. There is so much need and yet the Australian Government is not even doing what it committed to.

And they’re Burqa wearing Muslims! Yeah, and that’s just the blokes. Crikey! Live and let live. Living in Australia where in the 1880’s there was vehement partisan comments against a boatload of Irish Catholic Orphan Girls being allowed to settle in Australia “They’re Catholics! They’ll breed like rabbits and we’ll be overrun”. Then after the Second World War, there were the Greeks and the Italians (“We’ll be overrun! They never work! They’re not Australian!”), etc, etc. I have zero time for that silly racism.

And they’re all on welfare and wont get a bloody job! Ok. I’ll start with the anecdotal evidence first and then move onto research based evidence.

So, Mr and Mrs Gupta arrive from India. They open a corner store. How many hours is it open? All the hours that God sends. They have kids. How do Mr and Mrs Gupta feel about education? Rather strongly! What jobs are the kids likely to get? Doctors, lawyers, etc.

Now onto the factual stuff.

The research by Philippe Legrain, former economic adviser to the President of the European Commission, shows that each Euro invested in resettling refugees gives a return of 2 Euros within 5 years. Labour organisations have also shown that local wages are not detrimentally affected by resettling of refugees.

Also, I included in Chapter 23 of this blog, The Australian Goat Story that showed the benefits that two Lebanese brothers have brought to the Australian economy.

Lastly, what about letting in terrorists? For this I’m going to go straight to the research…..

A paper by Alex Nowrasteh from the Cato Institute in September 2016 showed the following statistics for the period 1975 to 2015 for America:

- The probability of an American being murdered by an American is 1 in 16,000
- The probability of an American being murdered by a foreign born terrorist is 1 in 3,900,000 (3.9 million)
- The probability of an American being murdered by a refugee is 1 in 3,640,000,000 (3.64 billion)
- The probability of an American being murdered by an illegal immigrant is 1 in 10,900,000,000 (10.9 billion).

QED. Quod erat demonstrandum. Thus it has been demonstrated. It has been demonstrated that the concern about terrorism from letting immigrants (and particularly refugees) into a country is unfounded.

That doesn’t mean that countries do not need to keep focussed on terrorism and its causes including radicalisation, ensuring integration into the communities in a country, and investigating rogue elements in a community, no matter what their cultural background.


Wow. Exhausted? I am. But thank you for sticking with me on this one. The crisis that the world is facing due to conflict is one which we in Australia are so often removed from and are able to avoid by simply changing the channel on the TV. Both Nik and I have often felt powerless in trying to help as each, seemingly endless, disaster or conflict unrolls before us. This trip provided us with an extraordinary privilege in not only witnessing some of the reality first hand, but more importantly, showing us that there are ways that everyone can step up and help. Both of us feel more inspired about how we can contribute going forward. And are more appreciative than ever of the amazing opportunities we have been so lucky to have and of the incredible people we are so fortunate to call friends.

Posted by capetocape2017 10:13 Archived in Greece Tagged greece happy syrian caravan refugees thermopylae alaa eddin jnaid

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Hands down, the best and most powerful chapter in an extraordinary year

by Geoff Silagy

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